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Expert comment: The Nobel Peace Prize - Could it reopen the path to peace in Colombia?

Catalina Montoya Londono Monday 10 October 2016

With the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Lecturer in International Relations Dr Catalina Montoya Londoño discusses what it could mean for Colombia’s future. 

On the second of October, Colombians made one of the most important decisions for a generation. With a turnout of 37.4 per cent in the electoral polls, 6,424,385 Colombians said no to the final agreement for the termination of the conflict signed by President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londoño, the head of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The result was 50.23 per cent of the votes against 49.76 per cent in favour of the agreement. Does this mean Colombians were indifferent to the agreement, given the low turnout to the ballot box, or hostile to peace?

My answer will be no to both questions. This is a country with more than six million people displaced by violence, a very high economic mobility within the country, high levels of emigration, shameful state of the roads and transportation systems in rural areas, and local elites willing to use carrots or sticks (whatever works better) to make people vote whichever way is convenient for them. These facts, along with an electoral system where people are only allowed to vote in places where their identity document is registered, hampers in many different ways a greater turn out. In fact, the Electoral Register Office didn’t allow new registrations of identity documents to take place for these elections, and in maintaining the electoral registry of the past election, many Colombians lost the opportunity to register to vote in this referendum from their new places of residence. Hurricane Matthew was also a factor, as it blew inconveniently during polling day, affecting nearly four million potential voters, particularly in the Atlantic coast of Colombia.     

Interestingly enough, and in a very consistent fashion with the political tradition of the country, once the results of the referendum were given, Colombian universities called for demonstrations around the country in order to express support for the peace process. The week followed with thousands of people in the main cities of the country marching and camping in support of the peace agreement, while President Santos tried to meet all the political parties within the country, and in particular those opposing the agreement, in order to find a way forward. The truth is, there was no plan B after a No vote, and the fact that all the legitimacy of the process was placed on a country extremely polarised by the armed conflict and with a traditionally precarious electoral system, was right in terms of its purpose, but highly exposed to the risk of failure.               

The agreement was signed after four intense years of negotiations between the government and the leadership of the guerrilla organization. The peace process had gone farther than any other peace deal attempted by the government since the mid-1980s, and there were serious virtues in this process that distinguish it from preceding attempts: a) In contrast with the previous three peace processes attempted with FARC, this was the first peace process that took into account the active participation of civil society and victims of FARC in drafting the agreements and amending its results via referendum; b) this process included for the first time the military and their perspectives in the negotiation process; c) it was designed with very clear roles and constructive participation of international organisations and countries at every stage of the negotiations; d) it placed the redress of victims of the conflict and the  rural inequalities at the root of the conflict, as a key component of the talks.    

The peace process was carried out under the leadership of President Juan Manuel Santos, whose week started with the defeat of the peace agreement in the ballot box and ended with the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to put an end to the Colombian Conflict. The President belongs to one of the most important political families in the country. His grandfather was a liberal president and Juan Manuel Santos himself was a hawkish Minister of Defense during the previous right wing government of Alvaro Uribe, during which most of the leaders of FARC were killed by the Army. Santos came to power thanks to the blessing of his predecessor and potentially could have brought the most reactionary right to his centrist neoliberal programme. Nevertheless,  the webpage of Centro Democrático, the main political party opposing the referendum for peace, led by ex-President Alvaro Uribe, promoted the referendum as a “cheat to citizens by using the word peace”, a “Coup d'état against democracy”, which “would create the same risk of living the same tragedy as Venezuela”, it would send a bad message to the terrorists that “being roguish pays off” it would “elevate the narco-terrorist group of FARC to state stakeholder, or para-state”, would impose on the victims of atrocities committed by FARC impunity, and give “26 seats in Congress to terrorists, drug-traffickers and kidnappers”. Never mind the efforts made by the government to dispel many of the gross generalisations and blatant lies in these statements, still, they resonated strongly with the distrust, resentment, and moral outrage of many of those who could express these sentiments against both FARC and the Government in the ballot box.

Still, many of the No voters would have liked to see an agreement that at least in its public presentation, was tougher on the guerrillas - regardless of what was actually written. President Santos said he will be looking for peace until the end of his mandate, and the Nobel Peace Prize he has been awarded is timely in providing international support for peace in a place that badly needs it and where efforts to overcome more bloodshed for future generations are actually taking place. In the context of political scoring, pyrrhic victories by internal political forces in the country, and citizen polarization and uncertainty about the future, hopefully this award will mean a push in the right direction.

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